Frankly, I'm convinced that whoever it was who first came up with that harebrained notion had simply gone off his medication. How such a nutty idea managed to catch on is anybody's guess. But this is a world, as I must keep reminding myself, in which millions of people happily devote three or four hours a week to watching Regis Philbin ask contestants if "Madagascar" or "170 million miles" is really their final answer.
Anyway, the way reincarnation works, as I understand it, is that after a person -- a murderer, for instance -- dies, he's reborn as a baby with important lessons to learn this time around. The problem, though, is that the baby doesn't remember having been this rotten apple. One can, of course, hope that this time he'll be raised in a home that fosters better values or that he won't have inherited toxic chromosomes, but what has any of that to do with learning lessons?
What sort of zany system would saddle some innocent newborn with all that baggage? I mean, it's not like getting liquored up and blacking out. The drunk is responsible for his actions because he got himself tanked up in the first place, even if he can't recall anything the next day. But, with reincarnation, it seems, you're responsible for what an entirely different person did. As a moral system, it leaves a lot to be desired -- namely, morality. Holding one individual guilty for the actions of another is about as defensible as playing cards with a marked deck.
If we're all just the same old souls in different packages, how is it there are twice as many people in the world now than there were a hundred years ago? Are some people simply so awful that they have to return as five or 10 people, because one person alone wouldn't have the time to learn the lessons, plus brush his teeth and tie his shoes?
Besides, if we've all been so busy learning these worthwhile lessons, wouldn't it figure that the human race would have been improving, slowly but steadily, down through the annals of history? Would anyone who survived the 20th century buy that for an instant?
Most people resent the truism that you can't take it with you. However, the concept that you're not going anywhere, either, is even worse. The possibility that death marks the end of your own personal movie, and that there won't be a sequel, is simply too grim for some folks to accept.
I, myself, subscribe to the belief that this life is all there is. This is not a dress rehearsal. Still, even I can understand the desire to believe that there are rewards and punishments ultimately doled out by a divinity who not only thinks we're as wonderful as we think we are, but, for good measure, also despises our enemies.
As silly as reincarnation strikes me, I can certainly understand man's desire for eternal life, even if most people I know have a tough time just making it through a three-day weekend.
Speaking for myself, I'm not sure I could cope with all that extra time. So, I suppose, before committing one way or another, I'd really need to know if there's cable in the great beyond.
Burt Prelutsky has written for The New York Times and numerous magazines. He has also written for such television shows as "Diagnosis: Murder" and "MASH."